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The Royal Visit

by Max Modiano Daniel

King Juan Carlos I of Spain visit the Los Angeles Sephardic community in 1987. 

Spanish King Juan Carlos I and his wife Queen Sofia greet Spaniards from the balcony of the Royal Palace after his proclamation as King of Spain in 1975. Photo from the Daily Mail. 

In 1920, the first constitution of the Sephardic Community of Los Angeles expressed its desire to "call to mind the happy heritage of a bygone age, when [our] forefathers lived contentedly in Spain." The passage revealed that, since its origins, the Sephardi community in Los Angeles held an emotional and intellectual connection to Spain. This connection manifested in programs as well; the Comunidad hosted lectures about Spain's history, social nights and dances celebrating Spanish culture, and campaigns to help preserve Jewish historical sites in Spain. These programs built on the centuries-long Iberian heritage shared by many Sephardic Angelenos, including members of the Comunidad as well as the Sephardic Brotherhood and the Sephardic Hebrew Center many of whom were Ladino-speakers.

The years after dictator Francisco Franco's death in 1975 saw a gradual rapprochement between world Jewry and Spain: in 1976, the royal family was visited by a delegation from the World Sephardi Federation and in 1986, Spain officially recognized the State of Israel. Yet for the Sephardi community of Los Angeles, the most momentous of all was the October 1987 visit of the King and Queen of Spain to Los Angeles, during which they made a special stop at the Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel (STTI) just days before Yom Kippur. 

STTI Archives

With assistance from the Spanish Consul General in Los Angeles, Don Pedro Temboury, STTI prepared a full day of events, beginning which the blowing of the shofar to introduce the King and Queen followed by a performance of various songs and prayers in Ladino, Hebrew, Spanish and English, and several honorific speeches by rabbis, communal leaders, representatives of the Spanish government and the King himself. Each of the speakers echoed themes of discovery, rediscovery, and reconciliation, and honored the ties of between the Sephardic diaspora in L.A. and Spain. Rabbi Jacob Ott of STTI welcomed the royal couple on behalf of the local Sephardi community, and local Sephardim from Morocco, Turkey and Greece addressed the King and Queen as well, some doing so in Ladino. 

Images from a special STTI publication commemorating the royal visit in 1987. STTI Archives. 

The addresses given by Jewish Angelenos recognized several subjects common in the popular memory of Spanish Jews: idealization of a glorious and productive Jewish past in Spain, sorrow and anger (as well as blame) over the expulsion and inquisition, and subtle proclamations of identity vis-à-vis local Sephardim's continued use of Ladino.

King Juan Carlos' address, in a more formal, diplomatic tone, described his goodwill tour of the American southwest and Mexico as a way to reconnect with the Spanish roots of the region. He concluded his remarks by proclaiming that Spain "in full conscience assumes responsibility for the negative as well as the positive aspects of its historic past," acknowledging the expulsion and inquisition while offering no such reference to the vicissitudes of Spanish colonization in the Americas or the expulsion of Muslims. 

The King's remarks, as well as those made by Los Angeles Sephardim, were included in a commemorative book issued in honor of the occasion, reflecting a general acceptance among local Jews of the King's apology as well as his invitation for reconciliation. Among the remarks included were those of Rabbi Moises Benzaquen of the Moroccan Synagogue Kahal Joseph, who was born in Franco's Spanish North Africa and vowed never to return after he left as a young man. And yet for Benzaquen and many others in attendance, the royal visit of 1987 seemed to have changed his mind: Salonica-born Aron Cohen, for example, decided at the age of 91 to finally visit Spain after the King's visit because he was so moved by the event. One year later, Rabbi Jacob Ott even received the honor of being made a Knight Commander of the Order of Civil Merit by the Spanish crown. Clearly, the day's events in 1987 were a moving experience for all in attendance.